Photo History Myths and Legends; Part 1
If I had not gone astray and become a theologian, I think I might have ended up an historian, as the interest I nurtured beginning with my learning to read has continued all these long years. As a film photographer, my historical bent leads me to a fairly small set of “histories of photography” and an even smaller set of collected writings on photography and/or by photographers. Then there are publications dedicated to the work of single photographers or perhaps small groups who in their author’s mind constituted a school or movement. Some of the newer works have displayed a nice humility in understanding by referring to themselves as “a” history rather than “the” history. A big book edited by Michel Frizot, with many European contributors, published in English in 1999 is called “A New History of Photography” while the American publication from 2000 by Robert Hirsch is titled “Seizing the Light, A History of Photography.”
I appreciate such humility. History itself is an ever evolving study. The history of photography is relatively short, even when one takes into account the discoveries and experiments that happened before the fateful year 1839. In my mind the historical significance of photography far outweighs its relatively short time of existence. It is not the technological history though that has such weight, but rather the sociological history of photography’s impact on the world. Marxist critics like Walter Benjamin, doomed to die in a Nazi concentration camp, and feminist critic Susan Sontag, have contributed to an enrichment of understanding of the way photography has both reflected social realities and impacted them. Social realities also impact the way histories are written, the way historians look at the sources.
That’s part of my reason for starting this series on photo history. It will be more like a reflection on the histories we have about a technological development that transformed the world in some very profound ways.
History and biography intersect, but history is definitely the attempt at a bigger picture. Take, for example, the story of the Frenchman, Eugene Atget. That he died in relative obscurity in 1927 means that there really is no biography of Atget. Before anyone thought of writing one, those that might have contributed something to a biography were gone. He left no writings outlining his approach to picture-making, nor formulas for plate processing or printing. There are no Atget “Daybooks” as there are for Edward Weston, no partisan essays as one finds for Paul Strand. Of those who knew him and wrote of it, there is Berenice Abbott who knew him briefly and admired his work to the point of rescuing it after the man had died, and there is Man Ray, who used an Atget image in a surrealist magazine, and who later in life expressed a lingering resentment for the interest and adulation the dead Frenchman had acquired, and scoffed that Atget had no artistic self awareness.
That interest and adulation is where history kicks in and biography drops off. What happened with Atget is that at a time when Modernism had grabbed the attention of artists of all sorts, (and the Catholic Church!) the work of Atget was finding an audience, through the efforts of Berenice Abbott especially, and young photographers were finding in the images a sense of direction and a sort of purification of photographic seeing. This was true of, for example, the young American Walker Evans, soon to become a significant figure in 20th century photography. So Atget IS significant because of the impact his work had on later photographers who became significant for even later photographers! Following the lead of Walker Evans was the 1950s photographic work of Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans”, in turn, influenced the work of Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander and the like. You see how influence spreads? And we then, at some point make that chain of influence and significance into what we call history.
Note: If you want to see Atget’s work at its best, look for reproductions that preserve the beautiful colors of his original prints. They were made on printing out paper and toned in gold. Straight black ink reproductions lose much of the emotional impact of Atget’s work.